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It’s hard to walk down a street in urban Tokyo without being reminded of the ever-present earthquake threat. Large signs on nearly every street notify you of emergency procedures and direct you to evacuation points. While it is undoubtedly drowned out by the background noise and visual blur for the average Tokyo resident, for a tourist it can seem quite startling or disturbing at first, and feel like health and safety overkill. Until, that is, someone points out to you that experts predict there is 70% or higher chance of an earthquake measuring 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale hitting Tokyo in the next 30 years. It’s a terrifying situation for an urban population that large, and one that forms the basis for Studio Bones and Kinema Citrus’ eleven part series Tokyo Magnitude 8.0

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After the scene-setting of the first episode there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot more to say about the show plot wise. School has just broken up for summer, and 12 year-old Mirai Onozawa is reluctantly taking her 8 year old brother Yuki to a robot exposition on the artificial island of Odaiba when the quake hits, and they team up with female motorcycle courier Mari to slowly pick their way through the wreckage of the city and get home. And that is about it. Sure, there are some great action sequences along the way, and a few moments of true suspense and peril, but otherwise there really isn’t much else going on with the storyline; this is pretty much standard disaster movie material. Which is where Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 pulls out its trump card – by presenting the audience with a genre its already familiar with, it gives itself the chance to explore some subtle and deep themes, with the end result being a surprisingly satisfying and emotional drama.

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The first episode opens with angsty teenager Mirai wishing something terrible would happen to Tokyo – a sentiment already voiced by characters in another show from last season, Production IG’s slightly disappointing and flawed post 9/11 drama Eden of the East – but before that we’ve already been subjected to TM8′s impressive opening sequence, a montage of black and white line drawings of various Tokyo landmarks destroyed by the earthquake. The images seem to mimic the painstaking detail of architectural designs, only to joyfully celebrate introducing chaos and destruction. It can be seen almost as a reminder of science and engineering’s ultimate futility against the power of the natural world and the environment, but there also seems to be a further commentary on human nature and society. Throughout the series there is a feeling of excitement as Tokyo and its citizens are descended into utter chaos as their transit systems are rendered useless and the precious cellphone network fails, and it was something that reminded me instantly of the disaster novels of science fiction author J.G. Ballard. Ballard focused on and discussed the voyeuristic, almost primeval desire for us to be witness to large scale disasters, in what Bruce Sterling once described as ‘psychic wish fulfillment’. As terrifying as it may be we want to see the destruction, and even more we want to see the aftermath, because we want to see what our controlling society looks like with the electricity gone, the buildings turned inside-out and the laws no longer enforceable. It is the ultimate act of human rebellion, deep seated within all of us, the wish to have the very nature of the mundane, day-to-day reality we are forced in inhabit ripped apart, and to see what life might be like outside our cell-like routine. Arguably all disaster fiction attempts to fulfill the same need, but not only does TM8 do it with graphic style and flair, it also balances it with perfectly with it’s second, more obvious, theme.

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Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is primarily about death. As much as we we enjoy the spectacle of destruction, the series never lets us forget that death stalks the upturned streets. We frequently see bodies, and although usually covered as they wait for collection, this serene anonymity seems to add a certain oppressiveness to the atmosphere – especially when couple with scale. We frequently see lots of bodies. Schools, churches and other public buildings are filled with them, lined up in calm, neat and respectful rows awaiting to be identified. In fact, death almost becomes the only order in the characters’ world; the cold, pristine makeshift mortuaries offer a stark, peaceful contrast to the random chaos of the rubble outside. Presenting this to us through the eyes of children allows us to step away from our conventions and preconceptions, and while it’s not a new trick in anime – the likes of Grave of The Fireflies and Barefoot Gen did it decades ago – TM8 brings it all up to date, with very identifiable characters and a recognizable contemporary setting.

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And mostly it works. On occasion there is a feeling of overt sentimentality or less-subtle emotional manipulation, but usually TM8 delivers it’s human drama with distressing authenticity. This holds true through to the end, and even if you see the inevitable twist in the story’s finale coming from miles back it doesn’t make the bombshell any less gut-wrenching, and makes you want to watch it over again to see if the clues were there all along. At its heart TM8 has a largely positive message amongst its chaos and suffering, that people are fundamentally good, that perhaps are sometimes suffocating society is a small price to pay for our safety and civility. For a child centered, family show that at first looked to be promising little more than thrills and adventure Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is a satisfyingly deep show, and evidence that Japan can, when it wants to, still produce television based anime that is both thrilling and poignant.